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Not Your Grandfather's Labor Movement

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

I wish the collectivist left would make up its mind. One the one hand, we have been bombarded for the past few years with the emergent doctrine that the government is the answer to just about everything. On the other hand, the people who work directly for the government organize themselves into unions—the very need for which implies that the workers need a measure of protection from their employer—the government.


It seems like a case of wanting things both ways. As we the people are called upon to cede more and more control of everything that matters to the government, we are also bearing witness to a rather odd spectacle. The very workers who form the delivery mechanism for various government services and benefits are, in effect, presenting themselves as victims of abuse by that same government.


The history of labor organization in the United States is an interesting study, dating back to what happened in Lowell, Massachusetts several decades before the Civil War. It is a story of conflict, creativity, charisma, and constructive change. That’s right, even a diehard “right-to-worker” can recognize that the development of unions in America was a good thing, in spite of excesses and difficulties along the way. Our national narrative is punctuated with fascinating people who, in the name of American workers, sought to improve conditions and correct abuse and injustice. Names like Eugene Debs, John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Homer Martin, George Meany, Mother Jones—even Jimmy Hoffa—remind us of days gone by. In many cases, we might rightly find their politics and methods very far from being our cup of tea today, but things like an eight-hour day, vacation time, sick leave, and other benefits humanized brute capitalism.

The story of unions in America is a real David versus Goliath tale, with underdogs banding together in solidarity to make a better life for all. It is also a tale of a pendulum swing as the underdog eventually came to a place of parity, then superiority. Then it all changed as the victim became a bit of a bully. That’s always ugly.


But there is no doubt that in the private sector, where the issue was corporate profit and even greed, organized labor once performed a vital function, raising the standard of living for many American families. My father was a Teamster and I am sure I benefited from his union affiliation.

This brings us back around to public employee unions. President Kennedy signed an executive order in 1962 effectively lifting a long-standing ban against government employees organizing to bargain collectively. This, in fact, ushered in an era of unprecedented government growth at taxpayer expense. Some now view his move in purely cynical terms—because even then, organized labor was strongly in the camp of the Democrats.

The question is begged: Why public employee unions?

Classic organized labor—the kind that really helped people in coal mines, auto factories, and steel mills—pitted the workers against business dynamics arrayed for the benefit of owners and elites. Why do people who work for the government (at any level and in any way) need to protect themselves from the very government that is the last resort for recourse and protection in the first place?

This is a fundamental question at the root of what is going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere in America. And we are at a vital crossroads. The issues du jour are not the same as those fought by our grandparents. It’s a different country today. And public employees, even aside from whatever clout they have via unionism, have in place a whole series of protections and benefits that private workers—even some in unions—only dream of.


The Scott Walker’s of this world need to dig in for the long haul and stay strong. They must not let the vehement winds of protest, or rhetoric inappropriately stolen from other battles in the past, sway them. Stay the course, like Ronald Reagan did with PATCO in 1981.

Or like another future president did more than 60 years earlier.

In 1919, Calvin Coolidge was the Governor of Massachusetts and by all accounts a pretty contented fellow—not a man of burning ambition. He had been a city mayor, state senator, and Lt. Governor en route to the state’s executive mansion. Then came a strike by public workers—particularly the Boston Police Department. The nation was being torn apart by labor unrest in the immediate aftermath of The Great War and devastating flu epidemic. In fact, one in five American workers went on strike that year.

In response to the walk out by Boston’s finest, Coolidge stepped up and fired the whole lot, calling in the state guard to help. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) begged Coolidge to reinstate the workers. In reply, Calvin Coolidge famously said: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

It’s a pretty well known story. Not as well known, however, is the fact that Coolidge had misgivings about what he had done after the fact. He was a political animal after all and feared that his actions would cost him the next election in the largely pro-labor (even then) Bay State. He remarked to someone, “I have just committed political suicide.”


Of course, he actually became a nationally known political leader. One of his biographers said that he was “a hero to the mass of private citizens who, alienated by postwar strikes, felt that labor was becoming contemptuous of public interests.”

Contemptuous. Yep, good word, one that pretty much says it all.

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